February 23, 2001
By: Julio C. Calderón
A man who lives by the lip - dies by the lip. Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante's use of the "N-word" in a room filled with African American labor leaders in Berkeley was truly unfortunate. The comment has received much press and generated much discussion. This may not be a mortal political wound, but it is one that leaves a permanent scar.
Unlike most who have opined on the issue, I know Cruz Bustamante, the man. I first met him when I was a reporter with KSEE-TV 24 in Fresno. I met an energetic young man working as an aide to then-Congressman Rick Lehman a young man with a passion for his job and his community. Mr. Bustamante was raised on United Farm Worker marches and woke up mornings to a house full of marchers housed by his parents.
The Cruz Bustamante I know and have watched grow in his political life cannot, and it would be totally unfair, be painted as a man that harbors racists or bigoted thoughts. The Cruz Bustamante I know, has been a source of great personal pride. This comes from one who has spent more than 30 years with the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), working to see Latino and Latina politicians reach the heights reached by Mr. Bustamante.
While the Lt. Governor has done all of the right things to steady his political course, it will never go away. His political enemies _ both Democrat and Republican, will repeat this statement every time he runs for office. I include Democrats because when the politically ambitious see an opportunity for advancement they will eat their own.
I make this observation even though Mr. Bustamante's treatment by the press and African American leaders is tame compared to that statement coming from White politicians, or especially, a White Republican politician. The irony of this incident being that Mr. Bustamante would have led the chorus had this been said by a Republican of any color. Of course, it will be difficult for him to criticize future faux pas with the same passion as in the past.
The issue goes beyond Mr. Bustamante. It points to our humanity. We are born imperfect. We are not born with a built-in mechanism that shuns the evils life can teach us. As imperfect humans, evil sticks to us. A perfect life, free of prejudices and sin, is so much harder to achieve. Politicians that present themselves as near faultless, place themselves in danger of the occasional faux pas.
Mr. Bustamante's use of the N-word (in itself new to the American lexicon) cannot be defended or excused. This much everyone who has written or commented or has been quoted on this incident can agree. His enemies have even used the psychology of its utterance; "He wouldn't have said it if he wasn't thinking it."
This incident, because it involves a man with impeccable credentials on race relations, has brought full-circle, the race card's use in political debate and strategies. Democrats have made the race card a mainstay of their campaigns against Republicans. It has become so prevalent that it's difficult to find campaigns where it has not been used in one form or another.
President Bill Clinton tried to help his vice president by proclaiming that it was a great sin that Latinos were less than seven percent of the federal government's workforce and issued an executive order to right this wrong. The discovery of the inequity came with three months left in his eight-year term as president. Then-Governor George W. Bush was making in-roads with Latino voters at the time. Clinton was using the race card some call it pandering.
Mr. Bustamante's faux pas provides evidence that the issue can befell any politician, Republican, Democrat or Green. It proves that the frivolous use of the race card in politics has got to go.
Racism and bigotry are very real evils in our society. These are evils that plague humanity and can, therefore, at best, only be constrained and cannot be completely expunged from the human experience. These are not even American in nature. People are killing themselves all over the world because of race, religion, and ancient tribal conflicts spanning centuries.
We have done well in these United States of America. We have done well when we consider that a mosque and synagogue can exist within a block of each other that Jew and Arab can live next door and not shoot each other.
Mr. Bustamante is not only a good man. He has been a good public servant. He is a credit to our community and to our state.
Julio C. Calderón can be reached at email@example.com